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NTSB calls for federal review process for automated vehicle testing on public roads after Uber investigation; “inadequate safety culture”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called upon federal regulators to create a review process before allowing automated test vehicles to operate on public roads, based upon the agency’s investigation of a fatal collision between an Uber automated test vehicle and a pedestrian.

During a board meeting held to determine the probable cause of the 18 March 2018, Tempe, Arizona crash, the NTSB said an Uber Technologies Inc. division’s “inadequate safety culture” contributed to the nighttime fatal collision between an Uber automated test vehicle and a pedestrian. The vehicle operator was uninjured in the crash, the pedestrian died.

Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group had modified the striking vehicle, a 2017 Volvo XC90, with a proprietary developmental automated driving system. The vehicle’s factory-installed forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking systems were deactivated during the operation of the automated system. An Uber ATG operator was in the driver’s seat, but the automated system was controlling the vehicle when it struck the pedestrian at 39 mph (62.8 km/h).

The NTSB determined that the immediate cause of the collision was the failure of the Uber ATG operator closely to monitor the road and the operation of the automated driving system because the operator was visually distracted throughout the trip by a personal cell phone. Contributing to the crash was Uber ATG’s inadequate safety risk assessment procedures, ineffective oversight of the vehicle operators and a lack of adequate mechanisms for addressing operators’ automation complacency —all consequences of the division’s inadequate safety culture.

Safety starts at the top. The collision was the last link of a long chain of actions and decisions made by an organization that unfortunately did not make safety the top priority.

—NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt


NTSB investigators on-scene in Tempe, Arizona, examining the Uber automated test vehicle involved in the collision.

The pedestrian’s impairment at the time of the crash (toxicological tests on the pedestrian’s blood were positive for drugs that can impair perception and judgment), coupled with crossing outside a crosswalk, contributed to the crash, as did the Arizona Department of Transportation’s insufficient oversight of automated vehicle testing, the NTSB found.

Among the investigation’s findings:

  • The Uber ATG automated driving system detected the pedestrian 5.6 seconds before impact. Although the system continued to track the pedestrian until the crash, it never accurately identified the object crossing the road as a pedestrian, or predicted its path.

  • Had the vehicle operator been attentive, the operator would likely have had enough time to detect and react to the crossing pedestrian to avoid the crash or mitigate the impact.

  • While Uber ATG managers had the ability retroactively to monitor the behavior of vehicle operators, they rarely did so. The company’s ineffective oversight was exacerbated by its decision to remove a second operator from the vehicle during testing of the automated driving system.

  • Uber ATG made several changes to address the deficiencies identified, including implementation of a safety management system.

The NTSB issued a total of six recommendations to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the state of Arizona, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and Uber ATG.

The NTSB recommended that NHTSA require entities wishing to test a developmental automated driving system on public roads to submit safety self-assessment plans before being allowed to begin or continue testing and that NHTSA should review the plans to ensure they include appropriate safeguards.

NTSB has released an executive summary; the full report is expected to be released within the next few weeks.

Consumer Reports (CR), which has been campaigning for some time on the issue of autonomous driving safety, said the full NTSB findings and recommendations underscore critical lessons not just for Uber, but also for the full auto industry, and for the federal and state regulators that are supposed to protect the public’s safety.

The NTSB’s hearing made it clear that the US Department of Transportation and many state governments are utterly failing to make sure self-driving car testing is being done safely. It’s the Wild West right now, and it puts the public at risk.

DOT and states should require self-driving car developers to prove their test vehicles’ safety before using them on public roads, based on rigorous evidence shared publicly and validated by independent third parties. If companies don’t put safety first, they’ll be risking people’s lives—not to mention their own viability—and should be held accountable under the law for the consequences.

—William Wallace, manager of safety policy for Consumer Reports


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